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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ask the Archives: Plotting

I recently went to a writers conference, and during a workshop, the famous writer leading the workshop said something like: "You have to know the whole story of your novel before you begin. Doing it without knowing would be like writing a song without knowing any notes." I've heard such a thing said before. I've also heard other successful writers say "Know the ending before I start my novel? Then why would I bother writing it?" Etc.

There have been comparable little nuggets about all kinds of writing habits sprinkled over me during grad school. I think some were helpful. Others made me feel inadequate. I tend to think that writers crave these kinds of aphorisms to make themselves feel better (provided they agree with them), or as a beacon out of troubled times. As far as I'm concerned, as long as you're writing, you're doing something right. Still, when I heard the famous writer tell me I should know the whole story before writing my novel, it did something to me. Maybe because I'm writing a novel, and I'm still not sure what the story is exactly, even at the end of the first draft.

Sitting at work yesterday, trying to will my novel's "plot" into existence (only on a subconscious level; consciously, I was doing my job), I took a glance over at the bookshelf next to my desk, which houses a copy of every HFR issue from the last 23 years. We've done tons of interviews, I thought. I could probably find words of wisdom to support any process-related writing theory every conceived. Thus, "Ask the Archives" was born. Below are what some really famous people have said about plotting (ugh, what a word) your novel. Agree with the ones that suit you. And by all means, ignore the rest. But rest assured, lots of successful writers disagree. About everything.

And please: send us your questions! Any writing related question - post it here or email to, and we'll be happy to compile a few answers from our archived interviews. For you fiction writers: T.C. Boyle, Gloria Naylor, William H. Gass, and George Saunders, to name a few. And poets! John Ashbery, Ai, Galway Kinnell, C.D. Wright and lots more.

Joseph Heller, 1984: "I know when I'm done [my novels] because I usually have the last paragraph of the last chapter written before I start writing the second chapter. And to me it's like, okay, this is where I'm beginning; I want to get to this line, or to this paragraph. And I think about it in the same way I'd think about getting to San Francisco...In much of my work, the story takes place retrospectively. The person telling the book has to know how things are going to turn out in order to be a credible narrator."

John Updike, 1987: "The novel is a little like living. You don't know what's going to happen from day to day. You have the general direction and a sort of general hopefulness that something nice will happen each day, and you sit down to it in that spirit. Novels have a slightly unsettling arbitrariness. I mean they could have gone some other way, very possibly, and be just as good or even better, but they do harden into the shape they take."

T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1996: Start with a voice, from the idea, and then follow it--very slowly at first, especially until you begin to get a sense of what the problems are and how this puzzle might resolve itself, and you don't really know until you get to the end...I think that's part of the magic of doing fiction. If I knew how I felt about Proposition 187 and illegal immigration and could encapsulate that in a phrase in the way that so many reviewers seem to want me to do, then maybe I'd write an essay about it. But I don't think it's a problem that admits such an easy solution, and I'm simply trying to feel my own way out of the problem."

Bret Lott, 2003: "I progress with no concrete notion of where it's going to go, I have a ballpark idea that is always willing to be sacrificed, it's always willing to be changed for the sake of the story that's trying to be told."



These examples can apply to poetry as well as fiction, since some poems begin with the last line (or first) and others only a particular image or series of sounds. Artists who make blanket statements about any type of creative endeavor should realize the potential their words have to feed dichotomous notions, thus paralyzing the intended recipient of their 'wisdom' rather than inspiring that person. Then again, maybe that's the plan. ;)

Lisa R. said...

When I'm writing a rather short nonfiction piece, say an essay or humor piece, I usually have some version of the final line in my head when I start.

But when I'm writing a long, lingering literary essay or memoir-like piece, I sort of know where I might wind up, but am usually surprised along the way by where I do finally end up and/or how I get there.

I'd hate to have to "advise" other writers how to do it. Mystery is, I think, a vital part of the creative process and I don't want to mess with it too much with rules.